BATTLE CREEK, Mich. -- Sitting with two close friends who helped each other raise their children Thursday, Robin Buonodono says she has not lived a normal life since her daughter was brutally raped and murdered.
In 1994, Buonodono lost her 5-year-old daughter Nicole VanNoty. Shortly after her murder, convicted killer Jason Symonds confessed. At 16 he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Now his case, along with juvenile lifer cases nationwide, are being re-evaluated to determine if each prisoner should be resentenced to a term of years and the possibility of parole, according to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case.
As soon as Buonodono says she learned this, she came back to Battle Creek from her current home in Florida as soon as she could.
"I came here to be my daughter’s voice," she said.
"I have a lot of people supporting me. These women raised my children with me. We all lived in the same place and we all watched each other’s children, and it just shouldn’t have happened," she said with tears.
Mid-August Buonodono and supporters walked to her daughter's headstone and marched in protest. She tells FOX 17 she went numb at times thinking of the abandoned home where police found her daughter, in a basement near animals skulls police believed Symonds had crushed.
“1994 my daughter disappeared," said Buonodono.
"She went to the same place every day, which was Jason Symonds’ home because her best friend was Nikki Oliver. Jason first started his killings with animals.”
At the time, Buonodono says Symonds was the step-brother to her daughter's best friend Nikki. Her daughter Nicole would play with Nikki at their family's home just across the street from where she and her daughter lived. She says her pain never goes away and wants Symonds never paroled.
Sofia Nelson is Symonds' defense attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office (SADO). SADO is handling nearly 200 of the more than 350 juvenile lifer cases in Michigan, which has one of the highest juvenile lifer populations in the country. Nelson says this law is not questioning the crime but if the prisoner can be rehabilitated.
"The question before the court in Mr. Symonds’ case is, is the adult Mr. Symonds capable of rehabilitation?" said Nelson. "And if he is then he has to be given an opportunity at parole. That doesn’t mean he would get released, that means that the parole board would look at his case and determine whether he can safely reenter society."
"Mr. Symonds is not contesting his guilt, he is very remorseful for his actions, although he understands, and I understand, that no apology can bring Nicole back," she added.
Calhoun County Prosecutor Dave Gilbert says he and Nelson disagree on what the law is. Gilbert tells FOX 17, "Based upon what [Symonds] did at 16, he knew what was right and wrong. He was definitely thinking about what he did. Trying to hide [VanNoty's] body, he was definitely thinking about what he'd done. He intentionally killed a baby."
Gilbert says Symonds is one of eight Calhoun County juvenile lifer cases; one additional county case is being handled by a special prosecutor.
For now, many of the juvenile lifer cases in Michigan are pending sentencing re-evaluation due to two pending Michigan Supreme Court cases which would determine: whether a judge or a jury would decide these sentencings, and what the standard of review will be for the appellate courts reviewing these decisions.